F. H. K. Henrion
A generation before home computers, Letraset’s dry transfer lettering made desktop typography possible – and gave a small group of type designers new insights into letterform construction through the art of stencil-cutting
When the London-based company Letraset launched its first dry-transfer typefaces in 1961, its advertisements proclaimed this new letter method ‘revolutionary’. And in its way it was: those sheets of rubdown Letraset fonts – around seven shillings from your local art shop – allowed graphic designers, commercial artists, admen (and in the 1960s it was mostly men), art students, anyone really, to set their own display type, without having to spend time and money sending out lettering to be metal typeset or drawn by hand by specialist artists, as had been the case until then. ‘For “roughs”, finished art, wherever the printed word is to appear, you will find Letraset a natural expedient,’ promised one early ad. This was, it should be remembered, half a century ago and far away in digital prehistory – Beatlemania was still two years away and London had not yet begun to swing.
By 1963, Letraset had distributors in 70 countries and had floated on the London stock market; the following year annual sales increased to £750,000 – a hefty figure by the standards of the day – and some 75 per cent of production was exported (the company received the first of two Queen’s Awards for Exports in 1966). There were certainly rivals – direct competitors such as Chartpak and Mecanorma, and also the new phototypesetting houses, which were producing camera-ready artwork for headlines and display – but by 1974 Letraset’s international sales had climbed to £16 million, by 1978 £46 million. In business terms, then, what had begun as a rather ramshackle operation in the old Wonderloaf bakery in Waterloo had grown into a big money-spinning success. Its cultural impact was even greater, as not only ‘the trade’ but also a whole hobby market of parish magazines, film-society circulars and school newspapers began to use Letraset. It was, says Colin Brignall, who joined the company in 1963 as a junior stencil-cutter and later became type director, ‘as influential in its way as the rag trade and fashion and music’.
Typefaces on Letraset and Letragraphica sheets.
Compacta, 1963, designed by Fred Lambert for Letraset.
Optex, 1970, designed by Dave Farey, from the Letragraphica subscription scheme. Helvetica, 1957, Miedinger & Hoffmann.
Top: cover from spiral-bound A4 size Letraset catalogue, 1976.
Jane Lamacraft, writer, editor, London
Read the full version in Eye no. 86 vol. 22 2013
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